“Chris,” Jeff called after me. I kept walking. “Chris?”
I’ve reached the end of the parking lot when his hand grabbed my shoulder. I spun to face him. I was confused, depressed and angry all at the same time.
“There’s more isn’t there,” he accuses me.
“Yes,” I hissed again.
I didn’t want to go into it. Jeff’s other hand grabs my other shoulder. He seems determined to get it out of me.
“What happened between you and Michael?” he demanded to know.
“How do you know it was Michael?” I shot back at him.
His face softened as his hands ran from my shoulders to my hands.
“Because I couldn’t stop him,” he took a step toward me. “I tired.”
“Yeah right, you would have been kicked out of the group and sat with the nerds if you had.”
“I wish they had,” his mouth curled up into a wry smile. “But apparently they needed someone smart in the group so they could all pass and continue playing sports.”
Jeff stepped closer. “I never understood why he hated you so much.” He gazed deep into my eyes. I could feel my anger barrier melting. “Was it love gone sour? Do you still love him? Is that why his words always hurt you?”
I blinked as I find myself on the verge of laughter or tears. His hypothesis is so close and yet so far away from the truth I don’t know how to react.
“Chris?” Jeff let go of my hands and placed an arm around my shoulder instead. He sat us down on the curb. “I swear anything you tell me will be between you and me.”
I swallowed and took a deep breath and let it out. Jeff’s arm around me was warm and comforting. I was brought back to the days before Rainbow Island.
“Rachael, has always been mean to me.” I began. “My mother’s family is from the wrong side of the track you see. It’s an age old grudge between the two families.”
Don’t ask why,” I said as I felt Jeff shift, “because I don’t know.”
“Michael,” I looked at him a wry grin on my face, “used to protect me from her.”
Jeff blinked in surprise. “I know, shocking, it gets better.” I took another deep breath and returned my gaze to the pavement.
“Michael and I were best friends, though after Rainbow Island came out things began to fall apart. I think he was a little miffed by the fact his name wasn’t used in the story.” I sighed, knowing what I had to tell next. I steeled myself for it.
“Then one summer came where he went to stay with his grandparents. He was gone the whole summer before he entered sixth grade. I was looking forward to the first day of school because I hadn’t seen him in months. I wanted to know if it was as boring as he’d thought it would be.”
My throat tightens as I stumbled over the next part of my tale. “Well when it comes to lunch time, when I know I’ll see him, who is he sitting with, but Rachael. They are sitting next to each other, hip to hip and obvious couple. I wouldn’t have cared, except that when Michael finally noticed me he shot out an insult to make her laugh.”
A sob caught in my throat. Jeff’s arm pulls me in tight.
“So he was your best friend?” There was sympathy and yet a hint of relief in his voice.
“And he turned on me, without warning,” I could hear my own bitterness in his voice. “A complete one eighty all for her, the girl we’d sworn was our nemesis.”
Jeff just held me tighter. His cheek rested against my hair. I am suddenly very aware of him. There was a part of me that wanted him to kiss me. Instead I broke away. I could not help be suspicious of Michael’s reported best friend.
“Why do you care?”
He shrugged, “I just do.” He studied me for a while. “It’s my association with Michael isn’t it,” he spoke at last, “that bugs you.”
“Can you blame me?” I regret pulling back. I couldn’t help it though. I haven’t had a best friend since Michael turned on me. That doesn’t mean I don’t want one. I just find it hard to trust people.
“No,” Jeff turned to face the pavement. He looked thoughtful and sad. He looked back up at me. “You said I’d made high school bearable, that’s got to count for something, right?”
His eyes are imploring me to accept him. When have I seen him turn on someone, or tease someone? It wasn’t just me he’d protected. I’d heard his quiet voice raise to stop them from talking about Mary-Ellen or Jean too. Of course, it only meant they would be on to me next.
That was high school though right? Everyone wants to be accepted. Jeff was like the rest of us. He’d found acceptance and hadn’t wanted to leave it. Who was I to judge him when he clearly hadn’t judged me. I don’t know how long we sat each wrapped in our own thoughts. Me staring out into the parking lot, him staring at or beyond me I wasn’t sure which.